Mastic Magic

Mastic Wreath
On January 8, 2018, I had the pleasure and honour to co-host a day-long workshop with Dan Riegler of Apothecary's Garden, who came all the way from Canada for some resinous adventures in the Holy Land. Here are some photos from our day together, along with 5 students from across the country.
Mastic Wreath

Mastic wreaths, to greet you at the door. Harvesting mastic branches and separating the leaves for distillation was part of the practical side of the workshop. We also dabbled in some very basic basketry related skills, turning these branches into a decorative chain. 
Mastic leaf distillation (Hydrosol)
Here is the still (a converted couscousiere) which we used to demonstrate distillation process. We produced only distillate waters (hydrosol). 
Preparing mastic leaves for distillation

Dan setting up the still and crushing the mastic leaves a bit more...

Lunch with a view

We went over to my brother's on our break, to enjoy lunch he cooked especially for us, and enjoy the beautiful view from his porch.

Mastic Branches, Leaves & Resin
Mastic before it's getting crushed and macerated over low heat with olive oil to create a mastic-olive oil infusion. 
Canadian beeswax - yum!
Beeswax from Canada, which along with the mastic-infused olive oil was handcrafted into a healing salve (great for treating eczema and other skin conditions). 
Mastic resin from Chios, Greece. 

Incense pastilles
Incense pastilles - made from mastic and frankincense tears, to which we've added mastic leaf tincture and other aromatics to create a customized incense "candy". These can be enjoyed by warming them over an electric hot plate or an essential oil diffuser, or placing over a charcoal like you would with loose incense.

Hope to see you next time for another great botanical workshop! 

Medicines for the Soul

Christmas in Nazareth

On Christmas Eve my brother invited us to go with him on an urban evening stroll in Nazareth, to experience the holiday at the historic birthplace of Christianity. My brother is a tour-guide, so it's always an experience to go for walks with him. He always knows about more than what meets the eye, and has connections with people where we visit that makes every trip with him, even to familiar places, a different experience.

Our experience started on a rather stressful note, being stuck in traffic in a very narrow, one-way downhill street that would make San Francisco's terrain look rather friendly. There was no traffic control despite very heavy flow of visitors to watch the festivities. We were stuck in what should have been a two minute drive for 45 minutes. When we finally found a 3/4 parking spot between a dumpster and another truck and got out, it was drizzling and cold, as it should be in midwinter in the Galilee.

The large square in front of the Church of the Annunciation was festive with an enormous tree-like construction with many lights and a big glowing red star on top and next to it the customary nativity scene. Many people around were wearing Santa Claus hats, blowing little annoying-sounding horns; but thankfully above it all was a recording of Fairuz singing Christmas songs. Christmas in the Middle East is certainly very different than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere.

I don't recall ever visiting in Nazareth, even though our family has special ties with the city. My mom's midwife, a Christian-Arab from the neighbouring village of Kfar Yasif is originally from Nazareth. Both our families have five children each (aside from me, my mom has four boys, and her midwife has five daughters). We are all in more or less the same ages. If it weren't for the strange political climate of this country, they'd all be married to each other by now...

Safdi's in Nazareth
Aside from the religious spots (Nazareth's spring, bath house and historic city centre, Mary's Well and its Church, AKA Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, and the Roman Catholic Basiclia of the Anunnciation (كنيسة البشار  in Arabic בזיליקת הבשורה / כנסיית הבשורה) - we also went into the old souk (market) of Nazareth, which is sadly mostly dormant due to modernization. Very few people have the desire or time to find parking in narrow alleyways that were built thousand years ago and wander between merchants to compare prices and negotiate bargains. It's much easier to go to the mall and pay with plastic cards all in one place, and cart your goods to the car underground. It was very sad to see so many stores closed, behind them are beautiful old shops with arched ceilings. Some of the old apartment buildings - although mostly neglected - were used to be effendi's homes, and their ceilings are made of Cedar of Lebanon, and hand-painted by a Lebanese artist from the time of the Ottoman empire. It's a lost world, and only recently some brave entrepreneurs have taken the initiative to renovate such places and open boutique hotels, hostels and cultural centres in the ancient cities of the country. There was also a little shop in the entrance to the empty souk, full of beautiful local craftsmanship. I hope to see more such things develop.

Meicines for the Soul
Once we reached the part of the souk that was still alive, I bought a cupful of coal-roasted chestnuts, reminiscing the cold foggy nights in Vancouver when we'd buy them from Yve's Chestnuts and warm our frozen mittens with their starchy, caramel-scented comfort. At the bottom of the hill there were some of the country's best Halawiyat (Arabic patisseries), where one should stop by for kunafeh - even if they don't have time or room in their stomach. But we were in a group with a different agenda than enjoying life on the stop - and instead continued on to Ziad Safdi's grocery store, which is really more of a magical old-fashioned herb and spice shop, that contains many folk remedies for all kinds of physical ailments, a collection of essential oils from local plants that is distilled in Nablus; speculates such as mastic gum, and mastic-flavoured chewing gum; and last but not least - assortment of medicines for the soul in the form of incense (pictured above) to be burned in special clay pots. You could find there anything from frankincense and myrrh to colourful and sparkling blends typically burned in churches.

Fine Nazarethi Baclava
As we continued on, we stumbled upon other interesting merchants, such as this man who brews coffee in a special pot decorated with olive branches and misbaha (prayer beads) that has hot charcoal in a pipe in the middle, and sends impressive steam to the air. We continued to El Babour Mill - Nazareth original steam-powered miller (the name is a mispronunciation of the English word "vapour") -  now more of a live museum for old mills, sieves and pieces of history from the family that keeps this tradition - and a spice and candy shop. I bought there a jar of black-coloured nigella spread, and green frikeh (charred green wheat berries). The tour ended there and once everyone spread to all four direction of the winds, my brother, daughter and I stopped at a more humble bakey and bought some spinach-filled sambusac, date-filled sesame balls, and karakish - savoury cookies that look like hard flatbreads studded with fragrant seeds of sesame and fennel.
Charcoal Coffee


Narcissus and Mastic

Place a piece of brittle mastic resin in your mouth. Notice how the dusty, powdery coating that happened during the commute overseas in a jar turns pliable as it comes into contact with the moisture in your mouth... Start to chew and feel the resinous, slightly smoky, piney aroma fill your palate and nasal cavity... A nostalgic aroma, like tasting "glida mastic" for the first time in Jaffa some late summer night, or like sipping warm sahleb in midwinter - cooked from a packet that your mom sent especially from Israel all the way to Canada, just because you asked her to... The tinctured resin, although smells heavenly like these old fashioned ice creams and above mentioned sahleb (it is also used to flavour malabi, by the way), is very tricky tow work with as it is not 100% soluble in alcohol and leaves blobs of chewing-cum consistency at the bottom of beakers and vials, and sticks to all the utensil one tries to desperately stir it with. Mastic resinoid are also possible to produce, although I've never encountered ones (in those products, greater amount will be alcohol-soluble).

Mastic essential oil, on the other hand, is easy to dissolve but does not smell all that exciting. It comes from the mastic bush leaves and twigs, which are an inseparable part of my childhood's daily aromatic landscape. Those bushes grew everywhere, and we played among them, crushing some leaves along the way and scratching a branch here or there - which also releases a wonderful green, fresh scent. The essential oil, however, does not smell quite so similar to this experience, and is rather more like the rhododendron leaf oil. There is a resinous and slightly funky aspect to it, and hardly any remnants at all to the utter freshness of the living plant.

Mastic Resin

Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus), AKA Mastic lentiscus is from the same genus as the edible pistachio nut, and the other native that is commonly found here - Pistacia atlantica (P. atlantica is often used as a base for grafting pistachio trees). This is a very common evergreen bush that rarely exceeds the size of a bush, but is capable of becoming a small tree (up to 7m tall) if it escapes bush fires, logging and is not continuously consumed by grazing wildlife and goats.

The word mastic derives from the Latin word "Masticare" (to chew), in Greek: μαστιχάω verb mastichein ("to gnash the teeth", the English word comes from the Latin masticate) or massein ("to chew").

Although mastic bushes are in abundance all around the Mediterranean basin, the gum is only produced in a handful of countries - Algeria, Morocco and the Canary Islands. But Greece is the only place where it is grown commercially especially for production of its fragrant gum-resin - especially in the southern part of the island of Chios (close to Izmir, Turkey). The gum is obtained by making incisions in the bush's trunk, and they drip tears which harden over time and become the translucent-yellowish-white "tears" that one can find in Greek stores to be used as a "spice", and can also be used as incense.

Basket from #mastic
Medicinal and Cosmetic Uses:
Mastic is most commonly chewed as a breath freshener, and that's the main thing it is famous for. Mastic resin was used in the original recipe for Egyptian Kyphi - a perfume that was also chewed as a remedy. Mastic is generally used for stomach complaints, especially diorama in young children. Due to the gum's properties, it is used in many cosmetic preparations such as toothpastes, hair and skin lotions, etc.

Culinary Uses:
Mastic was used first and foremost as a chewing gum and breath freshener - before there was any chewing gum. Try it! It really works - nature's own original sugar-free chewing gum.  In the heat of the Middle East, it was a key ingredient in ice creams, to which is added not only a distinctively fresh-resinous flavour, but also a plasticity that helped it resist instant melting.
Mastic is used in several pudding-like and spoon desserts, including the above mentioned sahleb and malabia.
In Greece, it is used in festive pastries such as the challah-like tsoureki and vasilopita (in which a coin is hidden for New Year's Eve).

Flavouring Beverages: 
Smoke from mastic resin is also used to flavour water in Morocco. Finally, in the Levant mastic resin is used as a spice (to a lesser extent) also to flavour poultry and fish dishes, giving them a very peculiar flavour. There are several liquors prepared with mastic resin, such as Mastiha which is native to Chios, as well as a fizzy beverage called Mast.

Role in Perfumery:
Mastic resin is a great fixative, and makes a great addition to mimosa fragrances. The leaf oil is useful in green florals, Chypres, Fougères, etc. Mastic is not a very common ingredient in perfume, yielding only 39 items on Basenotes directory - two of them produced by yours truly (although they are not the only mastic fragrances by Ayala Moriel Parfums). Sahleb is a smooth, buttery orris fragrance; while Virgo zodiac parfum oil is more of a balsamic-woody floral with accessory notes of spicy-green aspects (cardamom and fennel among them).
Other perfumes I perceive as having a mastic note, are Nature Millénaire pour Homme (Yves Rocher, 2000), Kyoto (Commes de Garçon), both having the mastic resin note. As for the mastic leaf and twigs and branches - an allusion to them can be found in green, crisp Chypres (the likes of Eau de Sisley 2).

Religious Uses:
The Greek use mastic in preparation of Myron, an anointing oil used in the Greek Orthodox churches' chrismation ceremony.

Traditional & Practical Uses: 
Oil of mastic is used much like turpentine is in the West, in paint Freshly picked branches of P. lentiscus are a traditional raw material for Mediterranean-style basket-weaving. The abundance of available material and the ease of use (aside from removing the leaves, there is no need for pre-soaking or any other kind of processing prior to weaving).


Winter festivities  Bois d'Hiver
It's the shortest day of the year, and the darkest night. So it's no surprise that dark thoughts are creeping on me. Although I was voicing them before  - that is  like why the hell did I pull apart my put-together life and drag my daughter with me into the unknown. Was a change so important to me? Was I really up for adventure in the true meaning of it - which is that almost every possible thing will go wrong? These thoughts were shouted out loud in broad daylight (usually in the context of some family drama, so it had an audience that kblieved I'm only half serious about what I'm saying). There is a different feeling to them - that of despair  rather than anger and rage - and having those thoughts come out of the cold darkness of midwinter. 

We're fast approaching the three months mark here in Israel, and there is no end in sight for the situation in which I am with my daughter 24/7. Not that I'm suffering from her company - but I know that she needs more than what I have to offer in this very stressful time when my attention is divided between maneuvering nastily stagnant bureaucracy, managing a construction site, funding the financing for a renovation project that costs three times more than I estimated, living in a  yurt with not even enough electricity to charge a mobile let alone a laptop or run a wi-fi... I'm tethering on my cellphone which is at 25% battery now and the laptop battery is running out faster than it usually does. As does everything in Israel - money runs out faster (because it's worth less), people's word is not worth much (especially when it comes to money or time commitments), and all electrical devices overheat after five minutes of use, for unknown reasons. In short: I'm at over-capacity, in all regards. When I have free time, I sneak into my brother's house where my suitcase of perfume stock is, fulfill my orders and then drive to the nearby Druze village's post office. And then there are some strange quiet times when I find myself in front of my laptop, blogging at long last. Next week we're going to see another program for her (after everything else I've seen was lacking in too many ways to count), and fingers crossed it will be worth fighting for her to be there. Because the temptation to hop on a plane and go back to the rainy desolation of Vancouver seems pretty tempting at the moment. At least I won't be feeling guilty if I do that. And in my imagination I will have the safety of a home again... 

On some more brighter notion (because I always feel obliged towards my reader to be optimistic in some way) - my house renovations are moving along, and I even got approval for some funding for my business expansion. I've never sought any financing for my business before, so I find this approval to be rather encouraging - and a good sign that it will go well here despite the bumps and hiccups of the move. 

Although I'm not feeling it right this dark moment - I know that the feeling of having a home is very important in midwinter. The yurt is not exactly cozy right now - it's too cold most of the time, and too crowded now too, because we had to move the bed from the little extra room to the mail tent... And there is a big Pilates chair sitting in the middle of the space.

I miss the Canadian festivities this time of year - as much as it is stressful with too many holiday parties, shopping and mailing to do - the coziness of the season's social gatherings is something I sadly miss. I miss having friends stop by and drop in for a visit (it took me years to "train" them to do it - Middle Eastern style! -  and now I left and my Middle Eastern friends are acting all Canadian on me and are too busy to ever get together unless it's for me to teach them Pilates). And unfortunately I've been so up to my ears in survival mode that I've been hard pressed to find time to reconnect with my childhood friends here -and have been largely out of touch with my friends from Vancouver, and that's not easy either. The combination of time difference and the sheer exhaustion that attacks me very early each evening is daunting. 

I don't even have an oven to bake any holiday cookies, so thankfully Chanukah only requires stove-top pan-frying. We got some Christmas lights from Kfar Massif (the neighbouring Arab-Christian village) and lighting them up already cheers me up quite a bit. I found our electric Menorah (but will have to hold off lighting it because the voltage here is way too high for it), and that's also cheering me up a little bit... And to pass the time when all my phones and laptops die, I now got into basket weaving and am making experiments with branches of mastic bush. These are extremely fragrant and even if the basket did not turn out that great - the whole yurt sure smelled amazing! I want to also make wreaths from them and from cypress trees. They should smell quite heavenly together... 

Tomorrow the day will be a few seconds longer... So don't be discouraged by dark thoughts today. Let them pass through you and know that the sadder and heavier you feel today - the lighter and brighter your mind will shine tomorrow with the rebirth of the sun and increase of light.

Malabi (Recipe)

Malabi by Ayala Moriel
Malabi, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Malabi is a Middle Eastern dessert, a milk pudding thickened by rice flour, which is usually served cold like Panna Cotta. Unfortunately, most of the malabi recipes, as well as what you'll find on street corners and even in restaurants are made with the inferior cornstarch, giving it (what I think is) an unpleasant aftertaste and a rubbery texture.

The dessert is made simply by cooking milk and starch as if to make a pudding. It is only minimally sweetened, if at all, and always must be flavoured with rosewater and orange flower water, which is the only thing that really sets it apart from the old fashioned baby-food that was served in the 1950's (when mothers were convinced that fattening a baby with modified starches is the way to prove that their kid is not malnourished). You may serve it warm; but the traditional recipe is for chilled malabi, which gives you room for many creative serving suggestions (i.e.: using moulds, fancy cups, garnishes, syrups and toppings).

This recipe is adapted from May S. Bsisu's excellent book "The Arab Table" (p. 322) and from Israeli Kitchen. Please note that malabi has many other names and spellings (i.e.: Mohalabia, Malabia, Muhallibieh, etc.). She also offers several regional variations on this dessert (for instance: whole green cardamoms and saffron strands are cooked with the pudding in Saudia Arabia), including the explanation about the Syrian and Lebanese version using rice flour instead of corn starch, which is my personal preference. Note: if you want a more gooey, jelly like consistency, use Sweet Rice flour, aka glutinous rice, which is easily obtained in Asian grocery stores. For a more wholesome variation (which is great especially if served warm) use brown rice flour. Note regarding the mastic: this resin adds to both the flavour and the texture of the dessert, making it more gooey, but also making the flavour a bit different (and it is an acquired taste). 

8 Tablespoons Rice Flour, whisk and dissolve in 1/3 cup of water.
4 tsp sugar
1 L whole milk
1 Tbs rosewater
1 Tbs orange flower water
Pinch of mastic resin (optional).

For the garnish:
Date honey (also called molasses), Pomegranate molasses, grenadine, rose syrup or rose petal jam.
Toasted, crushed, unshelled and blanched pistachios or almonds; OR fresh pomegranate seeds; OR ground cinnamon and cardamom plus crushed nuts. 

 - In a small saucepan, begin heating the milk and sugar.
- Gradually add the rice flour and water and rice mixture, and cook over medium heat and simmer, stirring continuously in order to prevent lumps from forming.
- Add the mastic, if desired. 
- Once the mixture had thickened into a custard-like consistency (in about 5 minutes), add the rosewater and orange flower water. 
- Pour into small ramekins or dessert bowls, a bring to room temperature. Cover with a plastic warp and refrigerate for 2 hours. Serve with a garnish of nuts and your favourite syrup.
- Please note: These do not invert well (like panna cotta), but will have to be eaten out of the ramekins, similarly to a custard or a Crème brûlée. 
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